American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. always claimed, “From my background I gained my regulating Christian ideals. From Gandhi, I learned my operational technique.”
The son and grandson of Baptist preachers in Atlanta, George, Martin Luther King went to Crozer Theological Seminary ready to fight for civil rights but full of doubts about the value of Christian love as a political strategy. He had adopted Reinhold Niebur’s philosophy that social evil was too intractable to be transformed by anything as simple as turning the other cheek.
A speech by Mordecai Johnson, then president of the largely Black Howard University, changed his mind. Johnson had just returned from India and had come back electrified by tales of Mahatma Gandhi’s successful struggle for Indian independence. Fascinated by Gandhi’s use of non-violent non-cooperation as a form of protest, the young theological student bought every book he could find on the Indian leader who had defeated the British empire with passive resistance and a spinning wheel. As he read, he became convinced that Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence was “the only logical approach to the solution of the race problem in the United States.”
King got his chance to apply Gandhi’s tactics for the first time in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. On December 1st, at the end of a long work day as a seamstress in a local department store, Rosa Parks was tired and her feet hurt. She refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus to a white man and was arrested. King, 27 years old and the new pastor of Dexter Street Baptist Church, was thrust into a leadership role in the protest against bus segregation that became known as the Montgomery bus boycott.
Under King’s leadership, the black protest remained orderly and peaceful. For thirteen months, the 17,000 Black residents of Montgomery refused to use the public bus system, even if it meant walking to and from work, adding hours to already long working days.
King and 90 others were arrested and indicted for illegally conspiring to obstruct the operation of a business. Unlike Gandhi and his followers, who accepted arrest as a natural consequence of civil disobedience, King appealed his conviction, thereby keeping his cause in the public eye and gaining a national reputation as a civil rights leader in the process.
In 1959, King made a pilgrimage to India as the honored guest of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who had been Gandhi’s right hand man during the battle for independence from Britain. He returned to the Unites States confirmed in his conversion to non-violence and inspired to follow the example of Gandhi’s satyagraha campaigns, particularly his march to the sea.
King’s approach to non-violent non-cooperation was not identical to Gandhi’s. The Hindu ascetic and the Baptist minister agreed that non-violence succeeds by transforming the relationship between oppressor and oppressed, allowing the powerless to seize power through self-sacrifice. But where Gandhi preached that the practice of satyagraha was rooted in patient opposition, King believed in actively confronting his antagonist.
On January 24, 1998, a statue of Gandhi was unveiled at the Martin Luther King Historical Site in Atlanta, commemorating the philosophical tie between the two men.